By Carol Tannenhauser
The city is planning to put a 220-bed homeless shelter on a block on the Upper West Side that already has two facilities offering social services to vulnerable people. One provides permanent supportive housing for people who need services, including those who are formerly homeless and/or mentally ill. The other offers emergency shelter for people displaced by fires or other catastrophes. Both are SRO (Single Room Occupancy) buildings.
Aaron Biller, president of Neighborhood in the 90s, a local advocacy group, believes that siting a homeless shelter in The Alexander, an SRO at 308 West 94th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, will “tilt the balance on the block” and violate a promise made by Mayor de Blasio in a 2016 homelessness report, which said, ‘Shelters will have a more equitable distribution across the five boroughs.’”
It is important to note that the SROs mentioned above are not “shelters,” which are transitional and meant to help homeless people reach the first rung of the permanent housing ladder: supportive housing. Once there, tenants have leases and keys, along with onsite social services. “Adding a shelter for homeless adult families to the mix doesn’t serve them or the other residents of the block well,” Biller said.
None will be more affected than the “five or so” tenants of the building who have refused to move out. One of them, Marlon Moctezuma, 37, has lived in The Alexander since he was seven years old. He called the situation “very stressful.”
“I found out it was happening from an article in an online neighborhood newspaper,” he said, standing in the vestibule. It is a beautiful old building, with the words, “The Alexander,” chiseled in the pink stone above the door. Biller said the owner, Alexander Scharf, had the inscription added after he bought the building. “Then, we got a letter,” Moctezuma continued, “and the building manager told us, and that was it.”
The opening of a shelter on West 94th Street coincides with the closing of one on West 95th. After six years of controversy and complaints, Freedom House, at 330 West 95th Street, between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, will be shuttered and its service provider replaced with a new one at The Alexander. If all goes according to plan, the change will be completed by the end of the year.
Aaron Biller is not happy with the plan, to say the least. He is mobilizing the neighborhood to protest it, saying the block already has its “fair share” of facilities, and the shelter should be located elsewhere. On October 18th, he brought about fifty people to a public hearing on the contract for the shelter, all going on record against it. He predicts that “hundreds” will do the same at the next Full Community Board 7 Meeting, to be held this Tuesday. If elected officials aren’t swayed to intervene, Biller suggested there could be a lawsuit.
Local City Council Member Helen Rosenthal tentatively supports the plan. “There will be no net gain of shelter residents in the area,” she explained, in an email to WSR. “Rather, a shelter is moving to another location, and we are cautiously optimistic that this will be a much better situation. We have heard very good things about the new provider from other Council districts.
“Yes, there are still residents living in the new site for the shelter,” she acknowledged. “The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) is working with them, and they have the option of switching apartments within the building if they wish to.”
As of yet, Moctezuma has not been offered that option, nor does he understand what it would accomplish.
“Like so many residents, I have been extremely concerned about public safety issues at Freedom House for years,” Council Member Rosenthal continued. “I remain cautiously optimistic that this new facility on West 94th – with a new provider, who has performed well in other parts of the city, and a more appropriate physical space – will be far better able to serve its residents. And if the residents are well served, they will interact positively with our community. I will be keeping a very close eye on the new location and provider as the move goes forward. We’re not going to comment about what Aaron is saying or doing, but we really do think this project should be given a chance.“
“Helen Rosenthal has thrown the community under the bus,” Biller stated, flatly.
Tuesday’s CB7 Meeting promises to be lively. Biller hopes the Board will pass a resolution against the siting of a shelter in The Alexander. If you have an opinion or interest, the meeting will be held on December 4th, at Mount Sinai West, 1000 10th Avenue, at 59th Street. All are invited to speak during the “public session” of the meeting, which will begin at 6:30 PM.